Fighting for Peace (2)

An endless stream refugees from Belgium… into Holland. A description, impression.. And a visit to Belgium shortly after the invasion (in order to prepare the return, verify that it is safe/sane to return)

This essay is entitled: THE WERWOLF AT LARGE 

p 87-102

This is not the place, nor the time, in which to attempt a full report of the humane task which was suddenly thrown upon Holland by the deadly doings of the German Werwolf in Belgium, nor of the way in which that task was accepted and
carried out. I shall note only a few things of which I have personal knowledge. Going along the railway line which leads to Antwerp, I saw every train literally packed with fugitives. They had come, not in organized, orderly companies, but in droves — tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. They were dazed and confused, escaping from they knew not what, carried they knew not whither. It is well for the poet to say: “Be not like dumb, driven cattle” but what can you do in a case like this except run from hell as fast as you can and take the first open road?
The station platforms were crowded with folks in motley garments showing signs of wear and tear. Their possessions were done up in bags and shapeless bundles, rolled in pieces of sacking, old shawls, red-and- white-checkered table-cloths. The men, with drawn and heavy faces, waited patiently. The women collected and watched their restless flocks. The baby tugged at its mother’s breast. The little sister carried next-to-baby in her arms. The boys, as usual, wandered everywhere undismayed and peered curiously into everything.
The crowds were not disorderly or turbulent; there was no shrieking or groaning. There were, of course, some of the baser sort in the vast multitude that fled to Holland — street rowdies and other sons of Belial from the big towns, women of the
pavements, and other wretched by-products of our social system. How could it be otherwise in a throng of about a million, scooped up and cast out by an evil chance ? But the great bulk of the people were decent and industrious — ^no more angels than the rest of us can show per thou-sand.
I remember a very respectable old couple, cleanly though plainly clad, waiting at the station of a small village, looking in vain for a chance to board the train. Everything was full except the compartment reserved for us. We opened the door and
asked them to get in. The old gentleman explained that he was a landscape-gardener, living in a small villa with a small garden, in a suburb of Antwerp. “It was a beautiful garden, monsieur,” he said with glistening eyes. “It was arranged
with much skill and care. We loved every bush, every flower. But one evening three German shells fell in it and burst. The good wife and I” (here a wan smile) “thought the climate no longer sanitary. We ran away that night on foot. Much misery for old people. Last night we slept in a barn with hundreds of others. But some day we go back to restore that garden. N’est-ce pas vrai, cherie ?*
Rosendaal, the Dutch custom-house town on the way to Antwerp, claims 15,000 inhabitants. In two nights at least 40,000 refugees poured into that place. Every house from the richest to the poorest opened its doors in hospitality. The beds and the floors were all filled with sleepers. A big vacant factory building was fitted with improvised bunks and straw bedding. Two thousand five hundred people were lodged there. Open-air kitchens were set up. The burgomaster and aldermen and doctors and all the other “leading citizens” took off their coats and worked. The best women in the place were cooking, serving tables, nursing, making clothes, doing all they could for their involuntary guests.

In the picturesque old city of Bergen-op-Zoom — famous in history — I saw the same thing. There a large tent-camp had been set up for the overflow from the houses. It was like a huge circus of distress. The city hall was turned into an emergency storehouse of food: the vaulted halls and chambers filled with boxes, bags, and barrels. When I went up to the bureau of the burgomaster, his wife and daughters were there, sewing busily for the refugees. I visited the main hospital and the annexes which had been established in the schoolhouses. Twice, as we climbed the steep stairs, we stood aside for stretchers to be carried past. They bore the bodies of people who had died from exposure and exhaustion.

In one ward there were a score of themost ancient women I have ever seen. They had made the flight on foot. God knows how they ever did it. One of them was so weak that she could not speak, so short of breath that she could not lie down.
As she sat propped with pillows, rocking slowly to and fro and coughing, coughing, feebly coughing her life out, she looked a thousand years old. Perhaps she was, if suffering measures years.
Another room was for babies bom in the terror and the flight. A few were well-looking enough; but most of them were pitiful scraps and tatters of humanity. They were tenderly nursed and cared for, but their chance was slender. While I was
there one of the little creatures shuddered, breathed a tiny sigh, and slipped out of a world that was too hard for it.

It was part of my unofficial duty to visit as many as possible of the private shelters and hospitals and workrooms and the public camps, because the Belgian Relief Committee and other friends in New York had sent me considerable sums of money to use in helping the refugees. In the careful application of these funds I had the advice of Mr. Th. Stuart, President of the “Netherlands Relief Committee for Belgian and Other Victims of War,” and of Baron F. van Tuyll van Serooskerken, a great friend of mine, whom the Queen had appointed as General Commissioner to oversee all the public refugee camps.

Three of these, Nunspeet, Ede, and Uden, were improvised villages, with blocks of long community houses, separate dormitories for the unmarried men and for the single women, a dining-hall, a chapel, one or two schoolhouses, a recreation-hall, a house of detention for refractory persons, one hospital for general cases, and another for infectious diseases. It was all built of wood, simple and primitive, but as comfortable as could be expected under the conditions. The chief danger of the camps was idleness. In providing work to combat this peril the Rockefeller Foundation and the committee of the English “Society of Friends” were of great assistance. Each of these camps had accommodation for about 10,000 people.

The fourth camp was at the ancient cityof Gouda, famed for its great old church with stained-glass windows and for its excellent cheese and clay pipes. This camp was the earliest and one of the most interesting that I visited. It was established
in a series of exceptionally large and fine greenhouses, which happened to be empty when the emergency came. Somebody — I think it was the clever Burgomaster Yssel de Scheppe and his admirable wife — had the good idea of utilizing them for the refugees. It seemed a curious notion, to raise human plants under glass. But it worked finely. The houses were long and lofty; they had concrete floors and broad concrete platforms where the “cubicles” for the separate families could easily be erected; steam heat, electric light, hot and cold water were already “laid on”; it was quite palatial in its way. A few wooden houses, a laundry, a kitchen, a carpenter-shop for the men, and so on, were quickly run up.
There was a bowling-alley and a playground and a schoolhouse. The people could go to church in the town. Soon twenty-five hundred exiles were living in this queer but comfortable camp.

[CAN THEY RETURN ??]

But it was evident that this refugee life, even under the best conditions that could be devised, was abnormal. There was not room in the industrial life of Holland for all these people to stay there permanently. Besides, they did not want to stay, and that counts for something in human affairs. The question arose whether it might not be wise to let them go home. Not to send them home, you understand. That was never even contemplated. But simply to allow them to return to their own country, at least in the regions where the fury of war had already passed by. I suggested to Mr.
Stuart that before you allow poor folks to
“go home,” you ought to know whether
they have a “home” to go to. So we took
my motor in October and made a little
tour of investigation in Belgium.
That was a strange and memorable jour-
ney. The long nm in the dripping autumn
afternoon along the Antwerp Road, where
the miserable fugitives were still trudging
in thousands; the search for lodgings in the
stricken city, where most of the streets
were silent and deserted as if the plague
had passed there, and the only bustling life
was in the central quarter, where “the
field-gray ones” abounded; the closed shops,
the house-fronts shattered by shells, the
great cathedral standing in the moonlight,
unharmed as far as we could see, except
for one shell which had penetrated the
south transept, just where Rubens’s “De-
scent from the Cross” used to hang before
it was carried away for safety — I shall never
forget those impressions.
[96]
THE WERWOLF AT LARGE
The next morning, provided with permits
which the German Military Commandant
had very courteously given us, we set out
on our tour. The journey became still more
strange. The beautiful trees of the suburbs
were razed to the ground, the little villas
stood empty, many of them half-ruined.
(Perhaps one of them belonged to our
friend the landscape-gardener.) We could
see clearly the emplacements for the big
German guns, which had been secretly
laid long before the war began, concealed
in cellars and beneath innocent-looking
tennis-courts. The ring-forts surrounding
Antwerp were knocked to pieces, their huge
concrete gateways, their stone facings, their
high earthworks, all battered out of shape.
Town after town through which we passed
lay half-destroyed or in complete ruins.
Wavre, Waelhem, Termonde, Duffel, Lierre,
and many smaller places were in various
stages of destruction, burned or shattered
by shell fire and explosives. The heaps of
bricks and stones encumbered the streets

FIGHTING FOR PEACE
SO that it was hard to pick our way through.
The smell of decaying bodies tainted the
air. The fields had been inundated in the
valleys; the water was subsiding; here and
there corpses lay in the mud. Old trenches
everywhere; thousands of rudely heaped
graves, marked by two crossed sticks;
miles on miles of rusty barbed-wire de-
fenses, with dead cows or horses entangled
in them, slowly rotting, haunted by the
carrion crows.
Yet there were some people in the coun-
tryside. Now and then we saw a woman
or an old man digging in field or garden.
We stopped at the front yard of a little
farmhouse, where the farmer’s wife stood,
and asked her some directions about the
road. She gave them cheerfully, though
the house at her back was Uttle more than
a mass of ruins.
“Were you here in the fighting.’*’* we
asked.
“But no, messieurs,” she answered with
a short laugh. “If I had been here, I should
[981
THE WERWOLF AT LARGE
not be here. I ran away to Holland and re-
turned yesterday to my house. But how
shall I creep in?” She pointed over her
shoulder to the pile of bricks. “I am not a
cat or a rat.”
They are indomitable, those Flemish peo-
ple. At Lierre we were very hungry and
searched vainly for an inn or a grocery. At
last in one of the streets we saw a little
baker-shop. The upper story was riddled
and broken. But the shop was untouched,
the window-shade half up, and underneath
we could see two loaves of bread. We went
in. The bare-armed baker met us.
*’Can you sell us a little bread?”
“But certainly, messieurs, that is what I
am here for. Not the window loaves, how-
ever; I have a fresh loaf, if you please.
Also a little cheese, if you will.”
“Were you here in the fighting?”
“Assuredly not! It was impossible. But I
hurried back after three days. You see,
messieurs, some people were returning, and
me — I am the Baker of Lierre
[99]

 

He said it as if it were a title of nobility.
At Malines (Mechelen) the devastation
appeared perhaps more shocking because
we had known the russet and gray old
city so well in peaceful years. Many of the
streets were impassable, choked with debris.
One side of the great Square was knocked
to fragments. The huge belfry. Saint Rom-
baud’s Tower, wherein hangs the famous
carillon of more than thirty bells, was bat-
tered but still stood firm. The vast cathedral
was a melancholy wreck of its former beauty
and grandeur. The roof was but a skeleton
of bare rafters; the side wall pierced with
gaping rents and holes; the pictured win-
dows were all gone; the sunlight streamed
in everywhere upon the stone floor, strewn
with an indescribable confusion of shat-
tered glass, fallen beams, fragments of
carved wood, and broken images of saints.
|. A Httle house behind the Church of Saint
Peter and Saint Paul, the roof and upper
story of which had been pierced by shells,
seemed to be occupied. We knocked and
[100]
THE WERWOLF AT LARGE
went in. The man and his wife were in the
sitting-room, trying to put it in order.
Much of the furniture was destroyed; the
walls were pitted with shrapnel-scars, but
the cheap ornaments on the mantel were
unbroken. In the ceiling was a big hole,
and in the floor a pit in which lay the head
and fragments of a German shell. I asked
if I might have them. “Certainly,” an-
swered the man. “We wish to keep no sou-
venirs of that wicked thing.”

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